Norman Mailer--the writer, the provocateur, the prisoner of sex, the enfant terrible, Marilyn Monroe's biographer and finally, the elder man of letters--died in 2007. But his life and his death have been transfigured into a writers' colony that searches the English-speaking world for the next generation of writers.
Just a note to explain how it all finally began. On April 13, 2009, I received an e-mail that read, in part, "We are honored to inform you that you have been named a 2009 Mailer Fellow by the selection committee of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Out of over 400 applications, your work has been chosen for our first Fellowship Program at Provincetown from July 5, 2009, through July 31, 2009." It was a rather lengthy e-mail full of specific information about the program. But about midway inside the e-mail, I was asked to answer a question. "Will you be attending the Fellowship program? We need to know this, since we have several alternates in case your plans have changed."
So it had finally happened. I was going to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the first time, and I would knock on the door of Norman Mailer's home and I would be invited inside. I would be one of seven writers--four men and three women--who would comprise the first graduating class of Norman Mailer Fellows. Being the first seemed important. Maybe just a footnote in the Norman Mailer canon of books by him and about him, but for me, it was Ahab strapped to the great white whale, beckoning his fellow seamen to pursue him and the whale.
The Time Machine
In 1948 Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, his hugely successful prize-winning debut novel. It was a book about World War II in the Pacific, and it was a book about America--the author Norman Mailer and the nation America were often inseparable themes, two sides of the same coin--and so throughout his grand novel of war, he would leave the Pacific Theater of operations and return to the United States with a flashback device he called "The Time Machine."
Now, more than 60 years after its publication and nearly a year-and-a-half after Mailer's death, the idea of collecting my thoughts about him would enclose me in my own time machine and take me back to the America of my youth. I first read Norman Mailer in high school during the war in Vietnam--The Armies of the Night, the Pulitzer Prize-winning literary nonfiction book that told the world about the anti-war march on the Pentagon. That was 1968. Five years later, as a senior at the University of Maryland in College Park, I studied a series of books about the Vietnam War--pro and con--including, once again, The Armies of the Night. Of course, by now, I had also read other books by Mailer, including The Naked and the Dead, Cannibals and Christians, Advertisements for Myself and The American Dream.
For a young writer dutifully serving his apprenticeship--first writing imitations of the poet Dylan Thomas and his lyric poetry and later imitations of James Joyce's arguably perfect fiction--there was much to like about Norman Mailer. He took on big themes. He embraced contradictions. He combined a certain literary swagger with an unabashedly comic sense of self-deprecation. He was unpredictable and an interesting guy. His personal story was as compelling as his work. I found memorable his observation, writing about himself in the third person in The Armies of the Night, that "While he could hardly, at this stage of his career, look back on a succession of well-timed and generally established triumphs, his consolation in those hours when he was most uncharitable to himself is that taken at his very worst he was at least still worthy of being a character in a novel by Balzac, win one day, lose the next, and do it with boom! and baroque in the style."
This determination to stay in the ring, no matter what, endeared Norman Mailer to me, a young Irish-Catholic American writer with my own version of being unwilling to back down. So Norman Mailer the writer served as an ally of sorts, but Norman Mailer the raconteur and storyteller was perhaps even better. During the sixties and seventies, at the height of the counterculture, the truly guilty pleasure for me was listening to authors tell stories about writing. There was a brief but deep interest in literature and the importance of language, and debates between authors were not uncommon. Writers were invited to speak on talk shows--the Dick Cavett Show, the Johnny Carson Show, the David Frost Show. On a good night, writers would talk about books and the literary world and who was a great writer and who was a second-rate writer. For a fan, and I was as big a fan as anyone who ever attended a baseball game, it was reliably great sport, and Mailer was often at the forefront. He would riff on a writer he admired or held in disdain or on the ongoing Indochina War or the women's liberation movement. He would riff on himself and what it meant to live in opposition to the Establishment.
Like anyone who longs to be a writer, I longed to meet and speak with a real writer. For me and for many of my generation, the man to speak with was Norman Mailer. Certainly, Mailer had his long list of critics and adversaries, but to me, these voices were faint and insubstantial. If Mailer was the cliché of the enfant terrible, he was also the irresistible black sheep uncle. So, in the heyday of hitchhiking, I would now and then think about hitchhiking to Provincetown to knock on Norman Mailer's door and say hello and meet the man I believed I was supposed to meet. But I never made the trip.
Then in 2007 Norman Mailer died. I spoke with my wife about him. I recalled the January 1968 interview with Norman Mailer in Playboy. I telephoned the Ohio Bookstore and ordered the 1968 issue. Reading the interview again after forty years was like watching a re-issued old movie, familiar dialogue, unfamiliar dialogue, forgotten surprises, laughs, but probably not the same laughs I got from the first reading. I also ordered two copies of The Armies of the Night--one paperback to read and one first edition out-of-print hardback for the library.
The Presidential campaign and politics took me away from normal life in 2008. Then, in early 2009, my writer-editor wife handed me an open copy of Poets and Writers magazine and said, "You should do this." I studied the one-page announcement about the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, handed the magazine back, and said, "Okay."
So it began. The Colony invited seven Fellows to spend the month of July in Provincetown, to attend workshops, lectures and readings and to devote time to their own work. Some of the Fellows wrote novels, while others specialized in nonfiction--a fitting combination, given Mailer's output in both genres and his blurring of the lines between the two. My plans included both. I was going to complete a final line-edit of my literary nonfiction memoir about the Middle East and Central Asia, entitled The Logic of Maps and Dreaming. I also planned to line-edit a novel, a Nick-and-Nora style political thriller, Letters from Kathmandu, about a married couple set in Washington, D.C. Lastly, I was going to write an article about the Colony.
The Colony provided airfare to Provincetown, accommodations for the month of July and a generous stipend for meals. I declined the airfare offer, and instead, my wife and I cobbled together a road trip from Columbia, Maryland, to Provincetown with a stopover in Mystic, Connecticut. Debra, a friend who writes crime stories, lent us her new Honda SUV, a stunning gesture, and we packed it with everything: a new Apple iMac computer, books, manuscripts, vitamins, tea, music, exercise gear, baseball caps and straw hats for the sun of Cape Cod. We decided to arrive in Provincetown a week before the Colony's official start to enjoy a vacation on Cape Cod. And so we set off, a middle-aged writer and his middle-aged wife, both of us thrilled, expecting everything, the specifics to sort themselves out later.
Lack of Traction
The first week--our pre-Colony vacation--was flawless. The first week of my Fellowship residency was awful, I repeat, just awful.
On the second day, unfamiliar with my surroundings, I slipped while stepping out of the plastic-floored shower onto the painted wooden bathroom floor, my right foot going forward, my left foot going backward, my upper torso and lower torso going in equally different directions, the entire naked collection of parts reorganized by gravity, pulled down fast and very hard, the full weight of everything falling like Newton's apple from a tree. It was the worst fall of my life: a twisted ankle, two blown knees, abrasions on my upper and lower back, a sprained wrist, and a left pinky finger that was swollen and purple and rigid with pain. Amazingly, after spinning and thrashing and clutching at the air, I had not sprained my neck or dinged my head. In other words, from the neck up, I was fine.
I had to make a decision. I was a guest at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony and I was a de facto guest in the home of Norris Church Mailer, and guests are supposed to make light of inconveniences and transient mishaps. So I waited and thought about what to do, what to mention or keep to myself. Finally, at a dinner party, I showed my grim pinky finger and sprained and bruised wrist to Catherine Moore, Administrative Assistant at the Colony, who reacted with concern and tacitly ordered me to inform Lawrence Schiller, the Executive Director and unofficial father-in-residence of the Colony, about what had occurred. I told Lawrence--or Larry as we later called him--that I was reluctant to say anything about falling down like an idiot, but I was equally worried that another later Fellow--after all, I was part of the first graduating class, a test group of sorts, a literary astronaut, testing the program for flaws--might repeat my stumble.
Lawrence Schiller does not take prisoners when it comes to problems. There is no line between him and the execution squad. He is the execution squad. Go to the hospital, he said. We'll take you. Have X-rays. Be sure you are okay. I explained that I had already seen an acupuncturist in Provincetown, and she did not believe the finger was broken, and she would treat me for the swelling and the pain.
Way too early the next morning, Schiller was knocking at the door of my condominium (in a building down the street from Norman Mailer's house, which is now the headquarters of the Colony). Are you sure you are okay--are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital, he said. I was more than half asleep, but real human empathy is unmistakable, and Schiller had ventured out from his usual circle of control. I did my best to respond to his truly genuine vulnerability. No really, I said, I'm fine. Thank you. He was talking and walking backwards in the grass. I cannot recite exactly what he said, but we had a moment between us that I doubt he remembers. I remember it because I was the guest and he was the host, and a lesser, more insecure host would have avoided me and let the details fall away as I had fallen and by falling down had raised an issue about safety. Soon enough, the condominium had a shower mat and two bathroom rugs.
Like my deceased father and grandfather and many living members of my family, I have a law degree. I have spoken in courtrooms and in arbitration hearings and in depositions and inside the chambers of state and federal appellate courts. I rather enjoy talking and answering questions. Sitting atop this personal historical predicate of liking to talk, I got toppled during my first public appearance at the Colony.
The order of battle for the first two weeks included two readings per Fellow, staggered over the initial two weeks. At my first reading, sitting at the long table in the living room of Norman Mailer's house with my colleagues, the floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the bay, I read the prologue to The Logic of Maps and Dreaming, set in a hospital in Safad, Israel, and the first chapter, set in New Delhi, India. I had never done a public reading. Not even so much as a poem. I had certainly never read even a paragraph of my memoir to anyone other than my wife, and even she had not been present when I read sections of my book aloud to myself at three in the morning, or later, when the clattering, illiterate sparrows ended my perfect renditions.
Okay--the ending is what you would think. I read badly. I read unlike any time I had ever read on earth. My hands shook as I turned the pages. I read too fast. I lost all cadence. I forgot what to emphasize. Afterwards, I did my best to answer questions that I did not really hear.
Only once before, during my father's eulogy, had I experienced panic, dry mouth, sweating hands, loss of intellectual presence. But then, in the church, I had pushed forward out of nothing less than a willingness to die rather than to fail. Here, at the informal gathering, I had simply felt like an untrained fool. There is no other accurate description for it.
Lawrence Schiller was telling another one of his reliably funny and riveting stories. I was at a Colony gathering, a dinner party, and everyone in attendance listened in absorbed silence. When Larry takes the stage, you listen. Larry is a naturally gifted storyteller. Like a naturally gifted pickpocket, he is quick, deft, bold and (at age 73) experienced. But he is also forthcoming about himself and his work, and self-deprecating. He is never disingenuous about himself.
Like his close friend Norman Mailer, with whom he collaborated for more than 35 years, Larry has lived many lives and taken many risks, and like Mailer, he also has a buoyant disregard for what others think about him and for the dangers that others typically shirk. A successful photojournalist as a young man, he took iconic photographs for Life Magazine, Playboy and Paris Match, to name just a few. He took the last professional photographs ever taken of Marilyn Monroe--of Marilyn swimming nude in a pool--on the set of the film, Something's Got to Give. She died two months later. He took a devastatingly poignant photo of Bobby Kennedy, curled up and asleep on the floor of his campaign plane; weeks later, after winning the California Presidential Primary, he was also dead, killed by an assassin.
Schiller went on to become a grand master of other media. He was the director of the Emmy Award-winning television miniseries, Peter the Great, and also directed the documentary film, The Man Who Skied Down Everest, which won an Academy Award. He came up with the idea of a book of photos of Marilyn Monroe and enlisted Mailer to write the narrative for the bestselling book Marilyn. According to Schiller, he and Mailer fought vehemently during the first months of their partnership. In his tribute to Mailer at a three-hour memorial service at Carnegie Hall on April 9, 2008, Schiller said, "When we first met in 1972, we were so different that no one thought we could become friends, or even survive the first month. I was an accomplished, insecure, thirty-four-year-old photojournalist who could not read or write properly. He was a literary giant, rumored to have bogged down in mid-career. What we had in common was we were both looking for ways to reinvent ourselves. We each had hit a wall." Schiller continued, "At first, working on the book, Marilyn, we fought. We screamed at each other regularly." Eventually, the two outsized personalities found a way to get along and became close friends and collaborators.
Adept at landing in the midst of major events, Schiller was present when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and it was Schiller who obtained the rights to the photograph of the murder. Before Gary Gilmore was executed, Schiller interviewed Gilmore, obtained the rights to his story and gave the material to Mailer, who wrote the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Executioner's Song; Schiller directed the made-fortelevision movie. Schiller also collaborated with Mailer on another project. Both of them traveled to the former Soviet Union to begin groundbreaking research on Lee Harvey Oswald, including interviews with his widow and with former KGB agents. KGB documents never seen in the West were smuggled into the West by three separate Mailer-Schiller couriers. Possibly the tiniest private spy network in history. This material became the basis for Mailer's book, Oswald's Tale.
Schiller's uncanny knack for being in the right hot spot at the exact right moment led David Margolick, author of a Vanity Fair article about Schiller's association with O.J. Simpson and his team of defense attorneys during the Simpson trial--and Schiller's subsequent bestselling book about the trial, "American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story"--to remark that many have dubbed Schiller a Zelig character, in reference to the Woody Allen film about a shrewd, faceless man who insinuates himself into the lives of famous people.
It is true that Schiller's life is filled with famous people. In a 1997 interview with Playboy, Schiller told a fabulous story about Marilyn Monroe that I had never heard before, a story wonderful with details about Marilyn Monroe's gift for charm and insight way above and beyond her sex goddess-movie star image. The section of the interview about Marilyn is far too lengthy to summarize, but the ending of the story I liked is simple. Marilyn had kept photographer Lawrence Schiller at her home for hours, talking, drinking Dom Perignon, reviewing photographs that he had taken of her and generally keeping him from returning home to his wife. "Finally I [Schiller] said, 'Marilyn, I've gotta go home. My wife is going to fucking kill me.'" As Schiller then related, Marilyn asked him where he lived. He gave her his address. She left the room for a long time. When she returned, they talked for some time and then he left. When he arrived home, his wife wasn't angry. Marilyn had sent her two dozen red roses with a note of apology for keeping Schiller for so long.
In his current incarnation, Larry Schiller is immersed in launching the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. It is an all-consuming task. During my time at the Colony, Schiller embraced his role as film director and photography director--making sure the Fellows were captured on film and in photos for the Colony's archives and for a documentary about the Colony. But this was just one of Schiller's many roles. A man with a vision, he commandeered each day, making deals on the phone, organizing events, smoothing the waters, moving everything forward.
No question, Schiller works hard, and he is intent on creating a different kind of writer's colony, one that "keeps alive the endangered serious writer" while also sustaining and carrying on Mailer's legacy as a writer and a mentor to other writers. In addition to hosting the seven summer fellows, the Colony hosted weeklong workshops on a variety of creative topics in the summer of 2009 and sponsored winter fellows in 2009
10. The Colony is also partnering with the National Council of Teachers of English to establish national writing awards for high school and college students; the first award recipients were recently announced. Helping young writers find their way is one part of the Colony particularly close to Schiller's heart. "Can you imagine a young high school student winning a $5,000 award for writing?" he said. "Imagine how hard those students will compete for that award and what it will mean to the student who receives it."
The idea for a writers colony began to form in Schiller's mind as Mailer grew increasingly frail and questions arose about what to do with the house in Provincetown. Mailer had been coming to Provincetown in the summer for years and started spending most of his time at the house on Commercial Street in the early 1990s. As Schiller noted in an article about the origins of the Colony, "The house had become part of the town's cultural heritage. Norman often said that Provincetown had become for him what Key West and Cuba were for Hemingway."
Mailer's generosity toward other writers was legendary. It seemed fitting to Schiller and to Mailer's wife, Norris Church Mailer, to continue Mailer's legacy by building a writers colony that would perpetuate that spirit of generosity and support. Schiller recalled visiting Mailer in Mount Sinai Hospital not long before his death, to find Mailer, "pencil in hand, editing some text" written by a nurse who had confessed to him that she longed to write. Schiller was struck by the image of Mailer, with the nurse sitting at his side as he went through her pages line by line. Schiller lifted his camera and took a picture. "The groundwork for the Colony continued to be laid without anybody saying a word about it," Schiller wrote. Making the house the headquarters of the Colony made sense to Schiller, to Norris Mailer and to others who were close to Mailer.
The already scheduled day for my second reading was fast approaching. After the Act I fiasco, I was spooked. I knew I should practice reading, but even the thought of practicing sent me back into that fear-induced state I did not want to relive. It was cold comfort, no comfort at all, really, that public speaking has routinely been listed at the very top of human fears.
As the time approached, I continued with my line-editing. I also got to know the other Fellows. They made an impressive group. Phil Shenon is a former New York Times reporter who wrote a bestselling book on the 9/1l Commission. Rachel Cantor is an accomplished fiction writer with an impressive number of published short stories to her credit. David Morris, a former Marine, reports on Iraq and Afghanistan for such publications as The Virginia Quarterly Review. Amy Rowland, a copy editor for The New York Times, is finishing a novel. Hanna Gersen has published her fiction in such publications as Granta. Alex Gilvarry, the youngest of the group at 28, has an M.F.A. from Hunter College and is working on a wonderfully improbable but clever and funny novel about a fashion designer imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
I must also mention, however briefly, that the Mailer Colony draws emissaries from the vast constellation of the literary and publishing world, including such notables as novelist and National Book Award recipient Don DeLillo, Playboy Editor-at-Large Christopher Napolitano, David Margolick, journalist with Newsweek and former contributing editor of Vanity Fair Magazine, and Michael Shae, Editor, New York Review of Books. I certainly never expected to meet any of these men so informally and so companionably. On a similar note, I never imagined as a boy reading Playboy that I would eventually be sitting in Norman Mailer's living room and listening to the Editorat-Large for Playboy.
I finally got around to practicing, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, and, most importantly, pause by pause. I did not even attempt to include making eye contact with the listeners. That was a bridge too far, and not one that I ever expected to cross. When the appointed day arrived, I had the jitters, but I also felt ready. When I sat down to read sections from The Logic of Maps and Dreaming, my voice no longer quaked, my hands no longer shook and I abandoned the speed-reading. Larry, who filmed all of our readings and workshop sessions, shot my second reading from the back. He later told me that he took that angle to film the back of my head and to better capture the sound of my voice. Fair enough. He was welcome to my voice, and I was pleased to have completed the mini-performance requested of me.
Two nights before the Fellowship residency ended, Larry Schiller threw a dinner party for all of us at the Mailer house. For reasons I can sort of explain, the assembled guests, myself included, seemed particularly happy and relaxed, outgoing and boisterous--a group of people who loved books and loved writing, and now, as the literary expedition marched toward the end, had become fond of each other. Not unpredictable I suppose, but very pleasant to observe. Everyone in the room had participated in their share of graduation moments: high schools, universities, master's degrees, Marine Corps, law school. Tonight would be another, and certainly it would be the smallest and most intimate. No diplomas, of course. But there was a long moment of unexpected formality when Lawrence Schiller, himself a recipient of Emmys and an Oscar, called the name of each Fellow and presented them with a small box that contained a crystal glass paperweight engraved with an image of the Mailer house, the name of the Colony, the date and our names.
Later, milling around Mailer's living room, with yet another beer in my hand, I talked with Alex Gilvarry. Alex proffered the box given to him by Larry and said, "This is our diploma." I told him he was exactly right and that he had written the ending of the article I had already begun to write while in residence at the Colony.
Yet the next afternoon, Amy Rowland stopped by my room while I was packing to leave the Colony, and said, "I have a definite sense of possibility as a result of being here." I told her the same thing I had told Alex: "You have written the ending of my article."
But I was wrong about Alex and I was wrong about Amy. The ending of the article would be written by the invisible hand and the invisible voice of the person closest to Norman Mailer.
Upon returning home, I wrote Norman Mailer's wife, Norris Church Mailer, a note of thanks. It included my anecdote about not hitchhiking to Provincetown to meet her husband. Ordinarily, a note of thanks for someone's generosity or hospitality does not require an answer, and I considered the Norman Mailer Fellowship officially concluded. But I was wrong again. My snail mail letter to her brought an e-mail reply that perfectly expressed her point of view and my own.
Forgive me for the tardiness of this reply to your nice note. I was finishing my memoirs and haven't answered any correspondence in quite a while, but I am so glad you got to come to the Colony and had a good time. The house has good writer vibes, and I think just being there gives a boost to whatever you are doing. I hope you found it so. If you had knocked on the door, we would have welcomed you in, others have done just that, and Norman was always gracious. He loved helping young writers, which is why we started the Colony. It sounds as if you and I are roughly the same age, I graduated from college in 1972, so I guess we can't be called young writers, but I still feel like that kid in my bell bottoms and scarf from time to time. Best of luck to you, Norris Mailer."
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